If you haven’t been introduced to Ryan Harrison, not to worry. It will happen because for the next 5-6 years you are going to get a steady diet of Harrison, especially for those of you in the U.S.
The heavily hyped Harrison is among a handful of bright, young stars who have invaded the ATP circuit this season – Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Ricardis Berankis being the others.
And here in the U.S., where we are always searching for the “Next Big Thing”, Harrison is it. He’s our future. In fact, he’s the only teen– male or female – right now with legitimate Grand Slam winning potential in years to come.
Of course a year ago Harrison was hardly a blip on the tennis radar, but he’s since put together some fine performances, beating Ivan Ljubicic at the US Open, edging Roanic at Indian Wells, getting the skin of top guys like Roger Federer and Robin Soderling and after reaching the his first career ATP semifinal in Atlanta last week he’s finally into the Top 100 at No. 94.
He may be green but he’s no pushover.
Harrison grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, taking up tennis at the early age of two under the guidance of his father, Pat, who played some pro tennis himself – mostly toiling in the Challengers. As the story goes, Pat even beat Ryan in the finals of a local Shreveport city tournament when his son was just 11. Talk about ruthless!
In 2008, Nick Bollettieri took the Ryan and now 17-year-old brother Christian in at Bradenton and soon thereafter Ryan turned pro at the tender age of 15.
Three years later Harrison finds himself under the microscope as the heir apparent to Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and other American greats. A burden he sounds comfortable with.
“It’s an honor to be mentioned in the same name and sentence as the guys that I have been before,” Harrison said in March at Indian Wells. “I’m doing everything I can to work hard and to put myself in the right positions to come through and make it there.”
So what makes Harrison such an exciting prodigy? He’s only 19 but the kid already packs a pretty diverse game. I think of him as a junior Lleyton Hewitt, just in a bigger frame with a little more power and some added pop.
Like Hewitt, Harrison can play back, front, offense, defense and he’s not afraid to rush the net, even off return of serve – ask Roger Federer – and serve-and-volley. When you watch him play the instincts and court sense are clearly there.
And Ryan is a fighter. Like Hewitt (or Jimmy Connors) he’s a cocky one at that bringing attitude, intelligence and a serious temper to the court at the same time. Those traits are tough to teach and, for better or for worse, Harrison’s already got ‘em.
“I feel like I can compete as well as anybody. A lot of guys have a breaking point,” Harrison said. “I never have ever reached a point in a match where I just said – like I was talking about with him – where I said, Forget it, I don’t care. That’s something that I’ve literally never had happen to me. I think that’s a huge asset for me.”
He’s also got a decent, well-rounded game suitable for all surfaces. His best shots are his serve and forehand, but he hits his backhand well enough and his net skills are probably the best of anyone under 23 right now.
Fededer, after beating him 7-6, 6-3 at Indian Wells this year, had glowing things to say. “On defense he did well. Offense he’s got a lot of potential, as well,” Federer said. “He’s got a wonderful serve. That’s going to allow him to control sort of 50% of the match. Then it’s the rest. How fit is he? I mean, he put his heart in there in every match, and I guess he’s a good practice player, too, which is obviously a key at that age right now, because that’s the age I struggled with in practice really, to get myself motivated for practice sessions. I don’t think he’s the kind of guy who has issues with that.”
And he’s smart – like a sponge smart, grounded and motivated.
“I love talking about tennis,” Harrison said. “I love trying to learn as much as I can. I feel like the more you learn and the more you have your ears and eyes opened to learn new stuff, the quicker things are going to happen. You’re going to get to a higher level quicker.
“I certainly believe in myself as much as anyone can believe in themselves. I have complete intentions of winning Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world and hopefully being a Davis Cup leader. I mean, that’s what I want to do with my career.”
Complete intentions of winning Majors? Did I mention he’s cocky?
What Harrison lacks most he can learn in time, and that’s experience. He’ll also get quicker, stronger and fitter, he’ll get more mature, too, and hopefully, for his sake, he’ll learn how to finish out matches better (recall that US Open match with Stakhovsky, Ryan I’ve noticed does struggle a little closing matches).
But will Harrison become as decorated on a tennis court as Hewitt or even Roddick? I’m not so sure.
Harrison, though, will have all the benefits of being a top American – likely the top American – playing on the tennis tour: Lots of USTA money, plenty of stateside tournaments (wildcards if needed), coaching access and preferential match courts/schedules. Plus, abroad he’ll always that significant American support.
Says Roddick, who has mentored Ryan, “For him it’s not so much how he plays. He likes the big stage. He plays well at some bigger events. For him, he’s going to have to take care of business in some minor league events so he is there full-time. I told him, I said, You make a career of — you make highlights playing above yourself playing good players, but you make a career winning the majority of matches you’re supposed to win. I think once he starts doing that, you’ll see him rise up pretty quickly.”
As for that ranking rise, having seen Ryan play just a handful of times, it’s tough to speculate but I see no reason he can’t crack the Top 10 by the end of 2013, and later break the Top 5. (James Blake broke the Top 5!)
Is he future No. 1 type of player? I’m not sold yet. But I think he’ll at least get to a Slam final or two, and maybe bag a few of them. That’s very plausible.
For me, I still don’t see that one killer shot and fact is, to get to No. 1 you really have to be the best in at least one discipline, and right now I’m not sure what Harrison will offer. Ryan doesn’t have “Del Potro” power, nor a Roddick nuclear serve nor he isn’t a freak like Nadal, so he’s really going to have to work hard the next 2-3 years to get there. But he seems to have a good head and the desire and talent are there to be tapped. It just takes time for everything to come together. And when it all does it should be a beauty to watch.
Later today, Harrison will continue his climb up the rankings by challenging the 21-year-old Berankis in L.A. in what could likely be a future rivalry of Top 10 guys.
Dimitrov, who I’ll preview here later in the week, is also in action tonight against Tommy Haas.
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